Borough - burgh

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Borough and burgh, as words and as suffix elements in place names, are different ways of writing the same word. They are mostly pronounced in RP identically, as two syllables: 'BU-ruh', IPA: /'bʌ (or ə) rə/, although Americans rarely spell the word as 'burgh', pronouncing it when they do as written 'berg' /bɜːrg/, and often pronounce the spelling borough (which can be abbreviated boro or bo'ro', etc.) as 'BER-oh', /'bə (or ʌ) rəʊ/. (The suffixes -berg and -burgh form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these..)


Etymological note: the Old English noun burh (a common Germanic form ~ 'fortified place', 'castle', 'fortified town', 'stronghold') had a dative form byrig, which decayed to byri. This gives rise to several different modern derivatives. Words in Present-Day English are almost always spelled borough, which in modern use means 'a town granted a royal charter, in consequence having a mayor and corporation'. (In the related American usage, there are five Boroughs in New York City, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.) As place-name elements in Britain, they can be spelled -borough, as in Aldborough (in Norfolk), Gainsborough, Londesborough, Peterborough and Scarborough; -brough, as in Aldbrough (in the East Riding), Brough itself and Middlesbrough; and -bury, as in Bury, Bury St Edmunds and Canterbury. The North Germanic form -by, 'farmstead', 'settlement', is found in the area of the former Danelaw in such towns as Grimsby, Skidby, Hunmanby, Whitby and Derby. The commonest form of the word and the element in Scotland, is burgh, in the names of towns like Fraserburgh, and Edinburgh: as a common noun, notice that the Scots equivalent of an English borough is a burgh (obsoletely often written brugh), of three kinds, royal burghs (created by the crown); burghs of regality (created by a lord of regality); and burghs of barony (created by a baron). Some of these, like Selkirk, St Andrews and Irvine, boast of being royal and ancient burghs.
A later West Germanic form is -burg, which can be seen in German place-names like Flensburg and Hamburg (beware: -berg means 'mountain'); and is in Luther's hymn Ein' feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress ("Safe Stronghold" in Carlyle's translation) is Our God). This yields the noun (and occasional epithet) burgher. There is a North Germanic variant -borg, as in Skanderborg and Helsingborg. In French-speaking areas it becomes -bourg, as in Cherbourg, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, which gives the adjective (and occasional substantive) bourgeois, or feminine bourgeoise. This can be used as an element to describe an inhabitant of such a town, as in Luxembourgeois[e], Strasbourgeois[e], and occasionally Edinbourgeois[e] (or Édimbourgeois[e]: the French for 'Edinburgh' is Édimbourg). The phrase petty-bourgeois (or French petit-bourgeois) is sometimes used as a derogatory term to sneer at the lower-middle classes and their presumed conventionality and conservative mind-set. The collective noun bourgeoisie is most often used as a Marxist term to label those who benefit from capitalism, the boss class who control the means of production and therefore the workers.


The noun 'a burrow', 'a hole or tunnel made by an animal as a lair', may well be the same word as burgh/borough in the sense of 'stronghold', but is not conclusively shown to be so. It is pronounced similarly, as a disyllable, though with a stronger '-o-' in the second vowel: 'BU-roh', IPA: /'bʌ (or ə) rəʊ/.
Much of the information on this page has been obtained from Cresswell, 2009 and Hoad, 1996.